Kofi Annan Reflects on a Life of Diplomacy

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke to a sold-out crowd in Washington, DC last night on his time at the United Nations and his role in trying to solve the conflict in Syria. The hour-long conversation with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was drawn largely from Annan’s new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. Part memoir, part recommendations for diplomats moving forward, the book, in conjunction with Annan’s talk, gives greater detail than before to many well known crises of the last two decades, including several unknown or under-reported details from his time as Joint Special Envoy in Syria.

After an overview of the former Secretary-General’s time growing up in Ghana and his start at the United Nations, Ignatius honed in on the time Annan spent as head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Annan stressed the disparity between mandates given by the Security Council and the Member States and the tools given to carry out those missions.

Most often the tools missing are manpower and political will. On lessons from Bosnia, Annan offered, “One of the problems for the U.N. is we should have been more realistic and lowered expectations, told the people what we are here to do and what we can’t do.”

As an example of the safety people feel around U.N. peacekeepers regardless of resources, Annan told a story of how in Southern Lebanon, the mission posted three peacekeeping soldiers in an area; six weeks later a village had sprung up around those peacekeepers.

Specifically asked about the Srebrinica massacre, Annan again pointed to the need to adequately provide the resources needed to achieve goals set. “When I asked the generals what are required [for ‘safe areas’], they responded that we needed 34,600 forces”. The Council, in return, determined that peacekeepers would dissuade Serbian attacks by their presence alone, authorizing far fewer troops than requested for the operation.

Political will was also lacking in Rwanda, following on the heels of Somalia. Annan retold the story recounted in the book of Canadian General Romeo Dalliare, Forces Commander in Rwanda, and other sources of the inability of the U.N. mission to seize weapons discovered preceding the genocide. Annan was also critical of the unwillingness of the Security Council to change the mandate of the mission once the violence began.

Sometimes, though, the tool most missing is information, according to Annan. In a twist on the well-known story of the ill-fated U.S. mission to capture warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid in Somalia, in Annan’s telling the 1993 mission was developed solely between Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali and U.S. Special Forces. As a result, DPKO knew nothing of the mission until the Battle of Mogadishu was nearly over.

On his role as the Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Annan stated “I am convinced that Libya is not Syria. Libya imploded. Syria will explode, causing problems for all in the region”. He also noted that all the states he had spoken to agreed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power; the question between them is only when.

Annan presented the Russian viewpoint, often seen as the sticking point in talks, as the moderate one between the West and Iran. “Even in Tehran, they tell me democracy is the answer in Syria,” Annan stated. The difference is that the Western states believe Assad should stand aside immediately, where the Iranians believe he should only leave after his mandate ends in 2014.

Russia was also characterized as seeing itself with more of a stake in Syria than the United States and other western governments, fearing a chaotic break-up of the country as “jihadists from Syria could wind up in the Caucasus.” Similarly, the government in Syria’s ongoing resistance to implementation of Annan’s Six-Point Plan was explained to Annan as a refusal to cede territory to, as the government called them, “terrorists and jihadists”.

Annan corroborated reports that China and Russia refused to budge on Syria over concerns with the implementation of the Council’s resolution on Libya. Resolution 1973 provided for a No-Fly Zone in the face of what seemed to be an impending massacre in the city of Benghazi.

Annan seemed himself to be at least mildly critical of NATO’s subsequent efforts to remove Col. Moamar Qaddafi from power, musing “I wonder what would have happened if NATO destroyed those tanks [approaching Benghazi] and said ‘Qaddafi, that’s your warning. Behave yourself or we’ll go much further’”.

The result of the Russian and Chinese feeling duped on Libya, is “that it will be very difficult to get another Responsibility to Protect resolution through the Security Council for awhile”, Annan said.

However, not all interventions need to cite the Responsibility to Protect, nor do all implementations of R2P require the use of force. Annan cited his 2007 work in Kenya as an example of the latter, noting that he was able to engage in talks with Kenyan leadership and with the backing of the United States and others force the sides to come to an agreement halting the violence.

Towards the end of the event, Annan took questions from audience on a wide range of topics. When asked on how Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could move forward, he drew laughter with his initial response, “That…is a tough question”. In reply to a question on the U.S. role in global security, Annan stressed that the United States has to remain a part of the equation, saying “You cannot be safe at the expense of others”.

In one of the most interesting responses, Annan was asked what reform could be made to make the United Nations more effective in resolving conflicts. He answered that as it takes between four to six months to get peacekeepers deployed once a conflict had exploded, the United Nations having standing forces as the ready would greatly improve response time and have the possible effect of the UN being able “show force, without using force”.

Annan then went through the several difficulties involved in this becoming a reality, including budget costs, basing, and the need to have government troops take over duties from these U.N. forces to prevent their being bogged down. Instead, Annan suggested that the U.N. focus on deploying those peacekeeping forces donated deployed faster and receiving troops with better training.